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The Swede Smell Of Success

By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page H01

Icon, an upstart British design magazine with a cheekily subversive sensibility, has raised some eyebrows with the publication of its March 2005 issue. In it, the editors have proffered their "21 Most Influential" list, a compendium of "people who are changing the contemporary design landscape" as well as "products, organisations and ideas that everyone will be copying in the immediate future."

So is the top spot claimed by some silver-haired titan of architecture, or maybe a brash wunderkind of product design? Do the editors reserve their ultimate plaudits for a brilliantly innovative hybrid car, a daring artists' collective or a revolutionary CAD program?

(Courtesy Harry Allen)

Think again.

Think cobalt blue and canary yellow. Think throngs of weekend shoppers jostling one another to fill oversize carts with plastic wastebaskets, rag rugs and assembly-required TV stands. Think lingonberries and Swedish meatballs.

Think IKEA.

"If it wasn't for IKEA," the editors say, "most people would have no access to affordable contemporary design. The company has done more to bring about an acceptance of domestic modernity . . . than the rest of the design world combined."

Their string of hosannas ends with a deep bow to the Swedish company's founder, 78-year-old Ingvar Kamprad, who started IKEA back in 1943 and has grown it over six decades into a multibillion-dollar enterprise with more than 200 stores around the world: "It's time to acknowledge that Ingvar Kamprad is the most influential tastemaker in the world today."

If influence is defined in terms of sheer reach, there would seem to be little room for argument.

"IKEA's not just in the U.K. and the U.S., but in Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia," says Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. "It's bringing modern design to people of modest means. It's the Bauhaus ideal made real," she says, referring to the 1920s German movement that sought to democratize design.

Lupton -- who says her IKEA furnishings blend quite nicely with her Eames pieces and Jean Prouve dining table -- believes nevertheless that the company's designs are not without limitations. "I don't think every product they make is great," she says, citing an inevitable "ephemerality" born of cheap materials and mechanized production.

But like the editors of Icon, she's willing to give Kamprad and company their due when it comes to having had a monumental impact on contemporary design. "I think it's spectacular that they're able to reach these incredibly diverse cultures and appeal to them," she says. "That's what Modernism wanted to do. It wanted to be universal -- but it never worked. This works."

Universal appeal carries its own set of hazards, however. On Feb. 10, six people were sent to the hospital, one with stab wounds, after violence erupted at a midnight grand-opening sale at an IKEA in north London. More than six thousand people, some of whom had begun lining up before noon, pressed, punched, kicked and scratched their way through the doors.

The 40 security guards hired for the event were overwhelmed by customers, several of whom literally duked it out over furnishings. One guard had his jaw dislocated when a customer took a swing at him. The store had to close 30 minutes after its gala opening event.

Terence Blacker, a columnist for the Independent, a London newspaper, darkly opined that the rioters had simply been overtaken by the flames of rampant consumerism. "Riots that occur through need are about to be replaced by their opposite: riots of unsatisfied excess," he wrote.

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